Victoria White: Fianna Fáil’s resistance to a Sinn Féin coalition is class snobbery

Victoria White: Fianna Fáil’s resistance to a Sinn Féin coalition is class snobbery

I just can’t get over the comment of Jim O’Callaghan, newly elected Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South, that Sinn Féin could “turn the country into Venezuela.”

Johnny Mythen, Pat Buckley, and Mark Ward are all new Sinn Féin TDs and are all working class.
Johnny Mythen, Pat Buckley, and Mark Ward are all new Sinn Féin TDs and are all working class.

If a Dun Laoghaire matron like my late mother had said it, I would just have rolled my eyes.

Coming from a highly respected and very effective TD, the comment makes me angry.

Ruling out a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, he said there was “no purpose in going through the charade of talks.” We must always talk.

We must talk, particularly, to people who are not like us.

Tribal politics should have no place in this representative democracy. God knows, we have spent long enough lecturing about that to unionists and nationalists in the North.

We have thought nothing of encouraging unionist MLAs, whose family members and friends were injured or killed by the Provisional IRA’s murderous campaign, to sit down together and make friends with Sinn Féin.

And here are high-profile Fianna Fáil representatives (notably Jim O’Callaghan and Michael McGrath) seeming to rule out even discussing coalition with their fellow ‘Republicans.’

Oh, but I’m forgetting something.

The difference between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin may run even deeper than that between Northern nationalists and unionists, because it is one of class.

I know this will be hurtful for Fianna Fáil members and supporters, but they have left behind their working-class origins. Their place, in ill-served housing estates and economically moribund rural areas, has been taken by Sinn Féin.

This is a place that the Labour Party should have taken, though it is a matter for political scientists to ponder whether a country such as ours, with no traditional industrial base, could ever have supported a national movement based on workers’ rights.

My family was a Labour Party household and my parents were friendly with Labour stars of the 1970s, such as Justin Keating and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

They helped lay the foundations for a pluralist, liberal society and that became Labour’s mission, hitched to the vehicle of Fine Gael’s Garret FitzGerald, who was also a family friend.

I never heard a working-class accent in the house, unless spoken by someone who was paid, as a trades person, to be there. My family was broad-minded, but that is the stark reality of class division in this country.

Sinn Féin has captured much of this country’s working-class vote by hoisting the tricolour, not the hammer and sickle, and their brand of left-wing nationalism is flying off the shelves.

I can forgive no Fianna Fáiler for refusing to recognise this mandate by not attempting to form a coalition with Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael is different. I agree with Paschal Donohoe that there is, in policy terms, too big a stretch between them and Sinn Féin across the centre of Irish politics.

As Gerard Howlin wrote here, yesterday, Fine Gael seems almost jubilant to be heading to opposition, where they can solidify the centre-right position their middle-class voters demand of them.

But Fianna Fáil? What is Fianna Fáil doing if it turns its back on the nationalist, left-wing vote?

What I have heard from Christian Brothers-educated Micheál Martin, since he became Fianna Fáil leader, was a repositioning of the party firmly to the left of centre.

He controversially retained Limerick’s Willie O’Dea on his front bench, citing his support in working-class areas. This was the Fianna Fáil that dreamed of forming, after Saturday’s election, a centre-left coalition with the Greensand with some combination of the Social Democrats and Labour.

The people voted, in huge numbers, for Sinn Féin, a left-wing party that has a genuine mandate from the people who have been shut out of much of the economic success of this country.

When the results came in, there was much wailing on the airwaves about the failure of the electorate to increase the number of women in the Dáil and to return “progressives,” such as Labour’s Joan Burton, Fine Gael’s Kate O’Connell and Regina Doherty, Independent Katherine Zappone, and Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers.

‘Progressive’ seemed to equate with support for repeal of the Eighth Amendment and ‘diversity’ with gender balance.

In the context of this country, ‘diversity’ of class is far more difficult to achieve, even more than diversity of race, but I believe it is a ‘diversity’ we must have.

Many of Sinn Féin’s 37 TDs have followed traditional, middle-class paths through college to work, but many haven’t.

Take Wexford’s Johnny Mythen, who worked in construction for the ESB and was a senior trade unionist.

Take Kildare South’s Patricia Ryan, who was elected while on holiday, and was a trade union shop steward for the workers of the Tyna knitting factory.

Take East Cork’s Pat Buckley, who counts among his political motivations the suicides of two of his brothers. Through the Let’s Get Together charity, he fights for mental health in working-class communities.

Dublin Fingal’s Louise O’Reilly, who has just been appointed to the Sinn Féin team negotiating possible government formation, came to politics following a career as a trade union organiser. Meath East’s Johnny Guirke was a construction worker who had to emigrate to the US for 18 years.

Dublin Mid-West’s Mark Ward has qualified as a behaviour therapist specialising in addiction, but was himself homeless for six months, in 2016: “When I grew up in north Clondalkin, I didn’t know I grew up in a council house,” he was reported as saying during the campaign. “I just knew I grew up in a home.”

Yes, it is distressing that Dessie Ellis, who served 10 years in prison for possession of IRA explosives, got 44% of the vote in Dublin North West.

YES, it was distressing to hear Waterford’s David Cullinane shouting, “Up the Ra,” after his election, preceded by the comment, “They didn’t break the hunger strikers, they didn’t break Bobby Sands and Kevin Lynch… They’ll never break Sinn Féin.”

I would have thought dead was about as broken as a man can be.

Far more relevant now, however, was his avowal that if FF and FG came together “to block Sinn Féin,” they would come back at them with double the candidates and become “the largest party in the State.”

I understand Micheál Martin’s desire that Sinn Féin should publicly disavow the IRA and all itsvile work, before the party is fully rehabilitated in government, but the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is as good a disavowal as we will get and the Irish people have voted to rehabilitate Sinn Féin.

That war is over.

But the class war will have only just begun if Sinn Féin is kept out of government.

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